There are many opportunities in our liturgical year for teachers to help preschoolers develop a Catholic identity. However, over these summer months of Ordinary Time, there are fewer significant feasts. Take advantage of this ‘quieter’ time to tell saint stories. For some children, this may be the beginning of a life-long interest in and devotion to certain saints.
Keep in mind that some saint stories would be confusing or even frightening for young children. Try using a topic commonly of interest to preschoolers: animals. There are delightful stories of saints who befriended or were helped by animals. These are certain to catch the attention and imaginations of very young Catholics!
You will have no difficulty finding picture books and other renditions of St. Francis of Assisi with a wolf, fish, a rabbit and a variety of birds such as a peregrine falcon and doves. Search online for images of St. Francis with animals.
Another saint with an abundance of wonderful animal stories is St. Martin de Porres, who set the broken leg of a turkey, calmed a frightened and frightening bull who got loose in the streets of Lima, and cared for many a sick dog or cat. He and his sister, though very poor, started what amounted to an animal hospital in her home. The most beloved animal story involving Martin is his compassion for the mice that over ran the infirmary where he worked. There are many pictures books of Martin, and this particular story is likely to be in some of them.
St. John Bosco is contemporary enough (1815-1888) that his stories are considered fact, not legend as that of earlier saints. In telling children this story, keep in mind the fact that there is violence behind it. John was often threatened by other people who disliked his work with homeless youth. One day, a huge, rather ugly dog showed up at John’s residence. No one recognized it or knew where it came from, but Grigio, as the dog was soon called, seemed to appoint himself John’s body guard. Numerous times he sensed danger before John did, and kept John from it, and at least once, Grigio let a would-be mugger know on no uncertain terms to leave John alone. As time passed, others began to see the merit in John’s work so the threats against him eased. One night, Grigio arrived as usual, but this time, he rubbed his head against John, lifted a tentative paw in farewell, and left, never to be seen again.
There are other stories, with less detail. You can use these ‘story bits’ to introduce children to other aspects of a saint’s life. For example, St. Philip Neri sometimes said Mass with a chipmunk sitting on his shoulder; St. Sergius, a monk who lived in a wilderness area of Russia, befriended many forest creatures, and he shared his bread at dinner each night with a companionable bear; Kieran of Ireland also hung out with a bear, as well as a fox and wolf; St. Cuthbert spent a cold night by the sea, praising God when two little sea otters came from the water and warmed his feet. An eagle also fished for Cuthbert and the two shared the meal.
Enjoy sharing these stories with your little friends as they learn of some of God’s holy ones—animals as well as people!